Food deliveries in Mass. skyrocket, and negative impacts could be coming
Food deliveries using services like Grubhub and DoorDash likely doubled during the pandemic.
The number of food deliveries facilitated by app-based companies like DoorDash, UberEats, and Grubhub likely doubled in Massachusetts since the pandemic began, reflecting national trends.
The findings were detailed in a recent report from the Metropolitan Area Planning Council. Researchers are now pushing for further exploration of food delivery data and how it impacts climate change, traffic congestion, and the restaurant industry.
Researchers estimate that the number of third-party food delivery trips in Massachusetts jumped from about 45 million in 2019 to about 60 million in 2020 and more than 100 million in 2021. This exponential growth has led to food deliveries becoming more common in the state than ride-hailing services like Uber or Lyft.
Food deliveries could have greater impacts on Massachusetts than ride-hailing services, the researchers found. Both contribute to street congestion, idling and the resultant emissions, and a greater competition for parking that leads to unsafe and illegal practices like double-parking in bus and bike lanes.
But food delivery drivers likely spend more time looking for parking or parking illegally. They also likely spend more time waiting in their cars waiting for their next assignment. On top of that, most food deliveries are within one to five miles, according to the report. Therefore, a transition to more sustainable delivery methods like bicycles or electric mopeds could be important.
Nationally, the number of food delivery app users almost doubled over a five year stretch, rising from 66 million in 2015 to 111 million in 2020, according to the report. A survey conducted last year found that 6.5% percent of adult consumers in the U.S. order deliveries with food apps every day, and 42% do it at least once a month, according to the report.
Even before the pandemic, Boston was one of the top areas in the country for food deliveries. It ranked third in the country by per-capita spending on food deliveries in 2019. Residents averaged more than $500 per year on restaurant deliveries before the pandemic.
Complicating things further is the proliferation of ghost kitchens and micro-fulfillment centers (MFCs). Ghost kitchens, as defined in the report, are commercial facilities that house one or more restaurant operators who prepare food for takeout or delivery, exclusively for online orders. MFCs, according to the report, are stores that stock items for order fulfillment and delivery but are often not open to the public for walk-up retail business.
Researchers acknowledge that ghost kitchens and MFCs can cause customers to place smaller and more frequent orders, which then leads to more idling, more emissions, and more traffic problems. Such facilities also do not help sustain foot traffic in commercial areas, potentially dimming an area’s vibrancy and hampering its economic vitality.
“As ghost kitchens and MFCs are likely to contribute to an absence of street vitality and social energy, increase traffic congestion, and create conflicts with pedestrians on main streets and commercial areas, municipalities should proactively think about their tradeoffs,” the report’s authors wrote.
The workers who make the entire food delivery system run could have a difficult time making ends meet in one of the country’s most expensive cities. Most of the app-based food delivery companies consider their drivers to be independent contractors, according to the report. The drivers are more likely to be non-white, younger, immigrants, and of a lower-income level.
“As independent contractors, they face confusing rules and options on liability insurance, whether delivering by car or other means,” the authorities wrote. “Frequently referred to as gig workers, these employees consider the money they earn from these jobs as essential or important for meeting basic needs, yet many earn less than $16 per hour after expenses such as transportation and insurance.”
The MAPC offered a long list of recommendations for lawmakers, state regulators, and municipal officials. Their recommendations include:
- Requiring food delivery platforms to report data to the state, including data on precise trip origins, destinations, time spent at the curb, and time of day.
- An assessment of trips made by food delivery drivers that is “designed to encourage more sustainable travel options that yield fewer greenhouse gas emissions and have less detrimental impacts on curb access and safety.”
- Ensuring that delivery workers receive fair compensation and operate in a safe working environment.
- Requiring companies to provide insurance and safety training for drivers.
- Expanding access to e-bikes and electric vehicles for delivery drivers.
- Implementing “curb management strategies” that designate spaces for delivery vehicles, evaluate loading requirements, and adjust zoning where appropriate.
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